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Will Loyalty Oaths for Religion Teachers Bite the Dust?


A much-maligned General Conference “endorsement initiative” concerning religion teachers at Adventist colleges and universities—it would, in effect, require a signed loyalty oath from each teacher—has motivated the North American Division leaders and educators to circulate a draft alternative proposal. That proposal has been presented to the International Board of Ministerial Training and Education (IBMTE) for approval. Depending on the methods adopted by each institution it would mean educators would not be asked to sign “loyalty oaths.” No one knows what the IBMTE Board’s response might be.

The conversation that follows continues reflection on both the substance of, and reaction to, the proposed endorsement initiative. Daryll Ward is professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College, and Charles Scriven, former pastor and educator, is now chair of the Adventist Forum Board.

Charles Scriven: The philosopher Richard Rorty said that religion “is a conversation-stopper.” The remark’s context was somewhat different from ours, but it still rings all too true, I'm afraid, in our own setting.

You are the only theologian who has published a written analysis of the 35 pages of text that our church bureaucracy has proposed as a criterion of legitimacy for religion teachers in Adventist colleges and universities. To be “endorsed,” these teachers would have to sign a pledge of support for these (often controversial) pages on doctrinal, hermeneutical, and other themes.

You argued that all this is papal, not Protestant, and in August we together published, on this site, a dialogue—a double-barreled jeremiad—concerning these developments. By email, we shared a draft with more than 25 Adventist educators and religion teachers and asked for comment. At the point of actual publication, we notified not only them but also ten other well-known church leaders, knowing from many conversations that the endorsement initiative foments both anxiety and anger. Still, just five of the 25 educators even replied to our emails, and just three included substantive comment. Not one of the 10 church leaders even replied.

What goes?   

Daryll Ward: Smothered under this pillow of silence, I am truly baffled. Really, what is going on? I don’t know. Can it be that the contacted church leaders and academics just don’t care? I have this sickening feeling that may be it. Nobody in the administration or the academy of the church cares about this. They just don’t care. Is their basic posture, “so what?” 

Just how paralyzing that thought is for me sticks out when my first reaction to the possibility of indifference is, “But if they don’t care, why are they implementing this plan?” I guess indifference could explain collaboration by academics. But indifference doesn’t explain creation of the endorsement demands. If you don’t care about the truth of your convictions, you don’t set up a process to insist on the truth of your convictions. And if you care about the truth of your convictions and one of your fellow believers raises questions about them, you don’t just ignore the questions. You don’t ignore the questions because you care about the truth of your convictions. We’re ignored so it would seem to follow they don’t care. 

Perhaps our questions are stupid, unfair, trivial, ignorant, and deserve to be ignored? Maybe. If so, wouldn’t it be easy to expose their uselessness?

Or is the problem even more appalling? We know our convictions are dubious, and so we substitute enforcement for consent. The logic of conviction should require you to care. But who cares about logic if you have power. 

Maybe it is just personal. It’s not that the powers don’t care about the substance of their assertions; it’s that they don’t care about anyone who can’t mobilize power. I didn’t need this little exercise in rhetoric to inform me that I do not have influence. If I were a Union Conference President and I opposed endorsement, maybe I’d get attention. Since I have no power, is there no point in conversation? Maybe that’s it. 

Beats me. 

CS: Self-comprehension is elusive and hard; self-deception is easy. Perhaps none of us fully understands what we are up to. Still, your reference to power intrigues me. The administrators who want the endorsement initiative know, or at least think, that they can reign in the scary idea-trafficking they associate with religion teachers. These teachers, on the other hand, know, or at least think, that the church’s bureaucracy can take away their vocations, their livelihoods. So no one talks. The administrators don’t think they have to; the academics don’t think they dare to.

DW: Maybe that’s part of it. It is certainly the case that church managers can and have fired religion teachers for what has been perceived as deviance from denominational doctrinal commitments. As for administrators’ capacity to “rein in” intellectual labor, that is far more restricted than it may be tempting for them to think. Hierarchs don’t have a good track record suppressing thought. Nevertheless, it would be unfair and uninformed not to recognize that the endorsement initiative does come out of a thoroughly commendable concern to protect the church from doctrinal error. I support that concern but not the means being proposed to address it.

It is humbling for people like us who have devoted our entire lives to persistent study of our faith to face up to the fact that most Adventists just don’t care that much about doctrine (and their grasp of it is correspondingly sketchy). And as far as people under the age of 40 are concerned, it would be difficult to find any who order their lives according to doctrinal formulations of the faith. As a rule, people don’t abandon the church because they conclude its teachings are erroneous. So, if the motivating concern driving the endorsement process is nurturing the health of the church, we’re on the wrong fitness regimen.

More specifically still, I’d love for the promoters of the endorsement ideology to spend a few days with me in my classrooms. They would discover my students don’t accept me as an authority in part because they have no time for authority per se. They are so thoroughly formed by our American culture that they really don’t care what I think beyond whatever curiosity I may evoke because my beliefs are mine, not theirs. Oh, theirs and mine may overlap here and there, but beliefs are private possessions, and no one has a right to push their beliefs on anyone else. I can’t corrupt the youth because the youth consider themselves infallibly authoritative with regard to their own convictions. There is nothing to fear about my imparting error because there is no hope for my imparting truth.

I point these things out by way of saying that this process is doomed to failure while at the same time being virtually certain to erode the integrity of Adventist higher education. How sad is that? It won’t guard against heresy. It won’t hold a new generation in the church. But it will produce dishonesty. It is a fact that large numbers of Adventist religion teachers in North America do not support, never mind believe, the things asserted in the IBMTE Statements. The very existence of the Adventist Theological Society proves it. The Statements are an expression of a disposition toward biblical studies that motivated the founding members of the ATS to separate themselves from their fellow Adventist academics. The differences remain. The Statements are, in effect, the charter of the ATS.

The saintly Alden Thompson is in print and on record that the Adventist Society of Religious Studies and the Adventist Theological Society “need each other.” (I would use Alden’s terms “liberals” and “conservatives,” but I’m an ASRS member, and I’m no liberal.) We are fallible. We do need each other. One reason the wisdom of Plato has endured to this day is that he acquired it and expressed it in dialogue. But then fallibility is more than likely the phenomenon about which our disagreements are the deepest.

CS: Yes, we need everyone—the different stripes of scholar, along with administrators and every church member—to participate in the give-and-take. We need everyone to see the need for both correction and support from others. This goes especially, I think, for academics, who may be tempted into undue self-assurance by their fancy training. I have repeatedly told a story from the dark night of Adolf Hitler’s crimes against humanity. In 1942, he convened his best-and-brightest strategic planners for what came to be known as the Wannsee Conference. Their assignment was to develop a plan for eliminating the Jews. Eight out of the fourteen persons who met there had doctorates. My point, a reminder to myself above all, is that educational advantage confers no necessary moral advantage. We all need the help that conversation affords.

But conversation thrives on trust. Exacting what amounts to a loyalty oath from every religion teacher would further stifle efforts to assure faithfulness through the exchange of ideas. During discussions about church unity at Annual Council in early October, we learned that many administrators realize that lack of trust is deadening. With the controversy over women’s ordination in the background, a segment of top leadership was proposing approval of a document called “Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance.” Passage would have required every member of the General Conference Executive Committee to sign a personal declaration of loyalty to, and compliance with, General Conference policy. The proposal went down to defeat, not least because several speakers, including a former General Conference president, objected to signing a loyalty oath. So now we have a new reason to stand firm against forcing signatures from religion teachers: if administrators know better than this for themselves, they can surely understand why religion teachers feel so betrayed and disheartened by this part of the endorsement proposal.

DW: As you know from the draft proposal of an alternative process for endorsement generated by the North American Division, there is reason to hope that the IBMTE approach of “exacting loyalty oaths” will be replaced by a process of discernment carried out on an institution by institution basis. This very recent development surely gives the lie to my speculations that silence in response to our requests for dialogue augers indifference. Apparently, some people care enough to formulate a manifestly different plan that, depending on its implementation, we could support. So to repeat myself from our last conversation on this site, given the near impossibility of formulating creedal statements that can or should enjoy widespread assent, a process of discernment is the best option for fostering the integrity of our faith, and, not coincidentally, the integrity of our religion teachers. I shall pray that both administrators and my fellow teachers will insist on this alternative. But I think we must be clear. The threat of corruption has not yet been turned aside, and it may yet be necessary to reject demands that, if met, would amount to a squandering of integrity.


Daryll Ward attended Andrews University, Tübingen University, and the University of Chicago (where he earned his PhD) and spent many years working in the field of addiction treatment, business ethics, and pastoring. He currently serves as Professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Image Credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash


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